Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 31, 2012

The Secret Evangelical: Rescuing my spiritual identity from the caricatures of political partisanship.

I am an evangelical but I am not sure I want you to know that. My hesitancy is rooted in the fact that evangelicalism has been misrepresented in our public dialogue. Since migrating from Canada to the US, I have quickly discovered that the term “evangelical” comes with a lot of social and political baggage. The Barna research agency has traced the public perception of evangelicalism and it is clear that the perception is primarily negative. Evangelicalism evokes things like closed-mindedness and political militancy to many people outside the church. In fact, Dan Kinamman’s book UnChristian, which surveys this research, points out that one of the primary associations with evangelicalism is political activism.

I have written elsewhere about the dangers of aligning our faith with a particular political party. See “Why Jesus Would Be Frustrated With Cable News Networks,” and “Can Our Politics Become Idolatrous.” The main point of these reflections was to convey the idea that Jesus’ vision for cultural engagement is much broader then the vision of one political party or politician. Jesus often weaves together issues that are divided politically. Furthermore, when we associate Jesus with one side of the political spectrum, we may be forced to contradict or misrepresent the values of Jesus. The reality is that there are issues on both sides of the political spectrum that contradict the teachings of Jesus.

Despite the negative associations with the term evangelicalism, I am not ready to disassociate myself from this movement. I have thought about dropping the label from time to time, but at the end of the day, evangelicalism, properly defined, helps me understand my spiritual identity.

Evangelicalism is a very difficult thing to define. It is a term that covers a very broad and diverse movement. It originates from the Greek word euangelion, which literally means “good news,” or “gospel.” Martin Luther used the label “evangelicalism” to denote his move back to the fundamentals of the gospel. Evangelicalism in the English speaking world refers to a movement that sprung out the Great Awakening revivals and the pietist and puritan movements. Figures like John Wesley, John Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards were foundational to this movement.

Evangelicalism is not tied to a particular denomination. It is a movement that includes diverse denominations that span from Southern Baptist to Dutch Reformed. What unites these various denominations under the umbrella of evangelicalism is a commitment to a four theological emphases. David Bebbington first came up with this definition and it has become the standard for evangelical identification. Evangelicals are committed to conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel through practical actions; biblicism, a high regard for the teachings of the Bible; and “crucicentrism,” a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Evangelicalism, then, is known for its concern for an active heartfelt faith that is committed to following Jesus and the teachings of the Bible.

Evangelicalism also came to be associated with a group of Christians who broke away from fundamentalism in the post WWII period. Evangelicals reacted against the anti-intellectual and belligerent nature of fundamentalism. Institutions like Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Fuller Seminary, and Youth For Christ became practical expressions of moderate evangelicalism. In our current public dialogue evangelicalism is often wrongly associated with fundamentalism.

To me, this is a heritage that is worth holding on to. When I first studied the history of evangelicalism I felt as though I had finally understood my spiritual heritage. These emphases that Bebbington describe are worthy of our attention. Evangelicalism is a movement that leads us beyond nominalism towards an active and devout faith in God.

Furthermore, there are currently great developments happening within evangelicalism. Writers like N.T. Wright and Timothy Keller have helped the evangelical movement discover how a commitment to the gospel leads us to a holistic vision for cultural engagement. I believe that the future of evangelicalism is very hopeful.

So I suppose I should alter my initial statement. I am an evangelical and I hope that one day I will want you to know that!

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Responses

  1. Thanks for the clear snapshot of evangelicalism. Could you clarify the issues of fundamentalism that led to the rise of evangelicalism?

    I need to keep a clear focus on issues of faith, especially as I’m pulled and pushed toward the issues being shouted out in the political “discourse” of the day. God help us.

    • Thanks for sharing Randy,

      Fundamentalism is usually associated with a strict literalistic interpretation of the bible, and a general opposition to modernity especially in terms of scientific developments. Other factors that caused evangelicalism to separate itself from fundamentalism was the fact that the fundamentalist movement was generally opposed to partnerships and dialogue with other moderate Christian denominations.

      A good example would be Billy Graham. He was raised in a more fundamentalist setting but he parted ways with the movement by seeking to engage in dialogue and partnership with other Christians including Roman Catholics.

      Evangelicals also sought to provide a more nuanced and open stance towards biblical interpretation, education and political involvement. However, the lines between the two movements are sometimes blurred since they evolved from similar roots.

  2. Thanks for your excellent primer on our brand of Christianity. Keep on spreading the “good news”

  3. There have been many times that I have hesitated to say I’m an evangelical for the same reasons you give. Because of my very conservative upbringing I used to say I was a fundamentalist. It didn’t take me long to leave that behind. It seems that when we put labels on where we stand in our beliefs, the “definition” of that label or how it is perceived keeps changing. So I just started saying I’m a Christian. I tried that when I was asked by the US Army what religious preference I wanted stamped on my dog tags. I said “Christian”. They told me that was not one of the options. So I put down Baptist – another label that has taken on baggage since they stamped my dog tags in the 1960’s.

    • Thanks Daryl,

      Yes, in some circles I simply avoid the affiliation altogether because, despite what I think it means, many people continue to perceive it in a negative light.

      For me it is a label worth hanging on to because it helps me understand my roots, and puts me in touch with an important spiritual tradition.

  4. For what it is worth, we in the mainline Christian traditions face similar baggage with our title, as “mainline church” gets equated with “the frozen chosen,” folks who never change or inject energy into their worship, and who are firmly stuck in the Leave-it-to-Beaver land of the 1950’s. Being a mainline church implies impotency in affecting positive change and envy towards the larger evangelical movements. It seems that any religious affiliation brings certain stereotypes with it, even for the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.

    Like you, I am not about to shed my own label as a mainline Christian. But hearing and seeing how me, you, and other Christians have felt about the baggage their particular labels offer brings to mind the Soren Kierkegaard quote, “Once you label me, you negate me.”

    • Hi Eric,

      I appreciate your perspective on how this issue of stereotyping occurs in all traditions. Kierkegaard’s quote sums it up well. Labels do have the power to negate the other.

      This leads me to question whether the defense of my label is even worth the effort. The reality is that my attempt to nuance evangelicalism with historical reference and appeals to a couple of thoughtful evangelical thinkers does little to counteract the stereotypes. This is especially true because prominent evangelicals continue to embody these negative stereotypes.

      I’m often torn between the options of abandoning ship or partnering with others who are seeking to bring about reform from within. My attempt to bring reform is rooted in my belief that there are aspects of the tradition that are worth salvaging and celebrating.

      At the same time, I have to admit that I regularly feel as though I am more mainline then evangelical. My identity crisis is far from over . . .

  5. Last night I asked Bruce if he considers himself an evangelical. If any one had asked me if I was evangelical prior to reading that, I would have said no. I associate that term with Pentecostal. But I fit the definitions. I brought it up because I was reading about it in unChristian! (Which I think could be modified into a great study, BTW). Bruce pointed me to this blog entry. It is surprising to me that only 9% of voters are evangelical. I think the definition could warrant some discussion – yours seems different than what Barna used in their research. The definition and how people interpret it is interesting

    • Thanks Michele

      I appreciate your thoughts. Part of the reason why evangelicalism is hard to define and means different things to different people is because it has such a broad meaning. George Barna also notes that way more people consider themselves evangelical compared to how it is technically defined. See http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/13-culture/111-survey-explores-who-qualifies-as-an-evangelical?q=evangelical. While 38% of the adult population considers itself evangelical, only 8% of the population fits the definitions based on theological grounds! The second last paragraph offers the criteria that Barna associates with evangelicalism.

      There is actually a great study guide available with the book UnChristian. It would certainly make a great church study!


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